Dolphins suffer tough loss to Steelers, fall to 3-3

Tough. That's the word of the day.

Two tough teams went toe to toe on Sunday at Sun Life Stadium. It was a tough, physical game. In the end, the Dolphins suffered a tough, heart-breaking loss (with some help from a tough call by the officiating crew). And now the Dolphins sit at .500 once again and face a very tough road ahead if they hope to make the playoffs in the very tough AFC.

After the game, most of the talk obviously centered around that controversial call. Linebacker Karlos Dansby told the media, "They took that game from us, man" - referring to the refs, of course. While there's some truth to that, this loss goes beyond just one unfortunate call.

Still, that's where we will start our look back.

Refs got call right - sort of

There's an unfortunate truth when it comes to the rules in the NFL. They are very specific and leave essentially no wiggle room for common sense to kick in. When the officiating crew went under the hood to review the already infamous Ben Roethlisberger fumble, they had to go by what the rulebook says.

Was the football out before the goal line? Yes. It was obvious that safety Chris Clemons knocked the football out at around the half yard line. But the refs apparently couldn't conclusively say that the Dolphins recovered the football. And do keep in mind that the refs don't have the luxury of the photo that basically shows the Dolphins did recover. I guess it also doesn't matter that Ike Alama-Francis came out of the pile with the football in his hands.

The refs applied the rule correctly.

The problem here is with the rule. Once the officials use replay, they can't then use their on-field observations to determine the call. So the fact that members of the officiating crew were telling Dolphin players on the field that the Dolphins had recovered - one even telling a player that the recovery was made by #59, who happens to be the aforementioned Alama-Francis - has no bearing. They couldn't see who had the football in the replay. And so the Dolphins were on the short end of that call.

My problem with this particular play? Why the hell did the line judge call the play a touchdown so quickly? Why didn't he let the play come to a conclusion before making a call on the field?

In that situation, referees need to rule the play a fumble so that they can go through the pile and see who recovered the football. Then the refs can huddle up and determine if they think the ball carrier broke the plane of the goal line before the ball came loose. If one of the teams want to challenge at that point, they can do so knowing that the call will either be a touchdown by the ball carrier or a fumble recovered by Team X. There wouldn't be any of this "it was a fumble but we don't know who recovered" nonsense.

At this point, though, all the bitching in the world will not change the facts of what transpired yesterday. The Dolphins lost and are now 3-3. And it wasn't this one play that cost the Dolphins the game, either. They had a number of opportunities to win this game. But they failed to capitalize.

If this final call had gone in Miami's favor, we'd all be talking about how the Dolphins were "lucky" to win. And that's true. After all, if the Steelers had simply run the football for no gain on that fateful third down and then kicked the field goal, the end result would have likely been the same. It would have still been 23-22.

At the same time, if the Dolphins had been on the positive side of that call and were "lucky" enough to win, they'd be 4-2 - whether they deserved the win or not. Right now, I'd give anything to be talking about how this team was "lucky" enough to pull out the win. A "lucky" 4-2 is a million times better than a "tough" 3-3.

Mistakes, missed opportunities, and poor play-calling

Like I said, this one call did not cost the Dolphins the game. Channing Crowder made that point after the game, saying, "We should have never let it get to that. We wouldn't have to put it in the ref's hands, which as we can see, they can make some bad calls sometimes."

So Crowder still found a way to take a jab at the refs again. That's fine. Head coach Tony Sparano avoided the controversy, telling the media after the game:

"I'm not going to get into what I think. I mean, it was a big play in the game, but it shouldn't have come down to that. So, we had plenty of opportunities to win the football game and we didn't."

Missed opportunities. Those are the two words that sum up this game for the Dolphins. They failed to pick up a first down following Pittsburgh's two early turnovers - settling for two short field goals instead. For the game, the Dolphins were a dismal 0 for 3 in the red zone - uncharacteristic for a team that was tied for the second best red zone efficiency in the league entering the game.

Brian Hartline's fumble was a huge mistake - giving the Steelers the ball at Miami's 34 yard line. A terrible missed tackle on a 3rd and ten play by Benny Sapp allowed Hines Ward to get into the endzone and give Pittsburgh their first lead. Two very big mistakes in a two minute span.

Then there's Dan Henning's play calls. There's one instance in particular that really baffles me. The Dolphins were trailing by 20-19. They had run three pass plays, completing two, on their drive that started with just under nine minutes left in the game to get down to Pittsburgh's 28 yard line. Chad Henne was getting into a rhythm. You have an elite receiver like Brandon Marshall. You have the best slot receiver in the league in Davone Bess. So Henning decides to run the football on first and second down, putting Miami in a third and long.

Huh?

The Dolphins had run for just 58 yards on 18 carries at the time. So why in the world would you try to run the football on consecutive plays? I don't get it. What I read into this is that Henning (or the coaching staff as a whole) doesn't trust Henne not to make a mistake in that late-game situation. So they went ultra-conservative and played for the field goal.

Here's my news flash for Henning: you don't beat elite football teams with field goals.

Following that field goal by Dan Carpenter, another mistake is made as Miami's kick coverage team allows Emmanuel Sanders to return a kick 48 yards to Miami's 48 yard line - needing only a field goal to take the lead. Huge momentum killer right there, as special teams again costs the Dolphins.

Lastly, getting back to Henning, why in the world would you run on first down with just over two minutes left and having no timeouts to stop the clock?

Like most of you, I'm growing very tired of Henning's questionable play calls.

Despite all of this, though, is one thought I just can't shake: if the refs make the right call on the field, the Dolphins are 4-2 right now. That's the feeling that will haunt all of us all week long.

QUICK HITS
More quick thoughts on the game:

  • That final offensive series - which began with that dumb decision to run the football on first down - was really tough to watch. But I wonder how much of that was due the fallout from the "questionable" call by the refs. These players are only human. I know all of us Dolphin fans were completely deflated by that call. Maybe some of the players were as well.
  • How about a positive from this game. The pass protection was simply amazing. This offensive line still struggles to give their backs running room. But they sure know how to keep Chad Henne upright. I was seriously impressed with how well the line and the backs were able to pick up some of Pittsburgh's blitz packages.
  • Davone Bess is awesome. Period. If only he was faster...
  • I loved how the Dolphins went right back to Brian Hartline after his lost fumble. That's how you get a young player back in the game.
  • Did anyone else see Cameron Wake getting consistently double and triple teamed all game long? If only the Dolphins had a legitimate pass rusher on the other side of Wake to take advantage of the attention Cam gets.
  • Why did it seem like Roethlisberger had an open receiver to throw to on every single pass attempt? I'm not even exaggerating, either. There was always a Steelers receiver running open against Miami's secondary.
  • The Steelers had a perfect play called on that critical third down play late in the fourth quarter. Chris Clemons came on the blitz and Mewelde Moore did an excellent job acting like he was a blocker before releasing for the reception and big gain. Just an unfortunate break for Dolphins.
  • Another positive - every week it seems like Chad Henne is improving. Was he too conservative at times? Maybe - though it's hard to tell if receivers were open on television. But he did a great job going through his progressions. It also looked like he had a better feel in the pocket. It's just a shame he couldn't lead one final drive.

What's next?

I said it before and I'm going to say it again. The Dolphins can play with any team in this league. But they are still not good enough to beat any team in this league. There's a big difference between the two.

Noe the Dolphins are back at .500. Eight teams in the AFC have a better record than the Dolphins.

Nationally, this team is once again an afterthought. Locally, though, this team will now slowly start fading to irrelevancy. The Miami Heat tip off this week and they will certainly take the spotlight off of the Dolphins in South Florida.

The Dolphins did this to themselves. They had every opportunity to be 4-2 or 5-1 at this point in the season. But they have been unable to take that next jump.

How is this team going to respond? We'll find out on Halloween when they head to Cincinnati to take on one of the few AFC teams with a worse record.

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